In this article we will talk about what a diet is, why diets don’t work, how to spot a diet, and what to do instead of dieting. Our hope is that you will not do the latest diet this New Years after learning about why diets don’t work long term.

What is a diet

Before we get into why diets don’t work long term, we want to first share what a diet is. According to Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionary the definition of diet used as a verb is to “restrict oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight” and “to cause to eat and drink sparingly or according to prescribed rules.” 

Most of us could easily name diets. For example, Whole 30, Keto, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, or Atkins. These diets give you rules of what to eat and what not to eat. How to eat and how you should not eat. 

The diet developers have recognized that most of us are sick of diets, and that we know diets don’t work long term. They know people want to lose weight, want to gain control of their eating, and want something instead of a dieting. Many of the diet developers know consumers are looking for what to do instead of starting yet another diet. So, people marketing their diets have gotten smart. How can we get people to do my diet without them thinking it’s a diet?  How about  let’s call it a lifestyle change! Let’s tell people over and over again this is not a diet. Let’s tell people this program is different. Let’s tell people this will be the last program they ever have to do to lose weight. 

How to spot a diet

Here are some ways to help you figure out if the lifestyle change is really a diet. 

1.     If someone is telling you how to eat, what to eat, and what not to eat

2.     If someone who doesn’t know you personally is giving you a plan you can buy online that has no personalization 

3.     If there are good foods and bad foods that are categorized as good and bad or healthy and unhealthy based on the diet 

4.     If eating any food that is not on the diet would be considered cheating 

5.     Following the “lifestyle change” causes you to have to say no to events or eating activities 

6.     You feel restricted 

7.     You can’t eat this way for the rest of your life 

Why do we want to diet

There is so much information out there it can be incredibly confusing to figure out what to eat and even when to eat. There are thousands of diet books. There are thousands of people on social media with degrees, many without degrees, telling you they have the answer. It’s so overwhelming who to listen to and what to do! With a diet you don’t have to think. Problem solved, right? You follow a plan. It is in a way easier at first because you don’t have to make as many decisions about food, the diet tells you what to do. 

This is how it can look when you are on a diet. You wake up in the morning and you have the thought, “what to have for breakfast? Strawberries and oatmeal, I want something warm. Wait. Stop. I am on a diet. I am trying to lose weight. My diet says protein only for breakfast. Ok greek yogurt and sausage.” Then you finish your dinner and you feel hungry later on you have the thought. “it is 8pm I am hungry what should I do? Oh ok I am supposed to stop eating by 8pm according to my diet. Ok I won’t eat.”  You go out to eat and have the thought, “what should I order at the restaurant? My diet says I should have salad with protein. That’s what I will get. Wow that was simple, this diet makes eating out so easy.” 

Not having to make as many choices and listening to rules at first can give you some feelings of relief. You have a plan! You believe that you have a plan that will finally help you lose weight. If you just follow that plan you will meet your weight loss goals. You fell like you will know what to do. So, what’s the problem and why does this not end up working?

Why diets don’t work long term

Why diets are not a long term solution is a very long answer and there are a lot of reasons. The short version to one reason is as human beings we do not like being told what to do long term. We can handle it for a little, but we do not like someone controlling our choices. 

There are many reasons why diets don’t work long term. I believe one of the biggest reasons is it is someone telling you what to do with your body and your life. It is someone else telling you what to eat, what not to eat, how to eat, or how much to eat. Or, in lifestyle change terms, it’s someone telling you what to eat more of and what to eat less of. It’s someone telling you what to add in and what to take out. It is someone telling you what to do. Most of the time the person telling you what to do does not know you. If they do know you, they are giving you their plan before asking you about you, your lifestyle, your goals, and your needs.

Yes, diets can feel easier. Yes, diets can feel like you have a way to control your food and your weight. The issue is this is easier only short term. It is incredibly difficult to have someone telling you what to put in your body throughout the day for the rest of your life. At some point you will very likely feel restricted. You will want your freedom back. You will likely eventually end the diet. 

Humans don’t like being told what to do long term. We don’t like to feel controlled. We want to have freedom to make choices that work for us. 

Why diets don’t work long term and what to do instead of dieting

The question becomes what you can do instead of dieting. Therapy is something that you can do instead of a diet. Therapy is helping figure out what works for you. It is about figuring out what works for you both short term and long term. As a psychologist that specializes in eating concerns, I do not go into our appointments with my plan that you must follow. I work with you to figure out what you’re wanting to change. I take a history where I then know what has not worked before and why it has not worked. I look at your life, your values, your goals. Then…  WE WORK TOGETHER to develop the relationship with food you want to have. 

 The word freeing is the word I most often here from my clients. You don’t have to be controlled by a diet, you can feel free to eat in a way that works for you. You can also free up so much time that you spend thinking about food and dieting. If you would like to learn more about therapy for eating disorders or eating concerns here.